On the table behind Lamar Jackson’s desk sits a framed, faded snapshot of a beaming 7-year-old boy. He’s holding up an award certificate. Standing behind him, with hands on the boy’s shoulders, his father looks nearly as thrilled.
“That was the first award I ever got in my life,” said Jackson, now 28. “I keep this photo because I remember how happy everybody was.”
It was for “good citizenship,” and the result of a grueling three-month effort by Jackson to avoid having his name written on the chalkboard for misbehaving. His classroom antics had gotten him barred from more than one screening of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” a movie he’d never seen.
“I wanted to be one of the kids that was out there going to the doggone movie,” he said. So he shaped up, was allowed to the next screening, and watched through his second-grade eyes, he said, “as the world opened up.”
His motivation, Jackson said, was simple. He wanted to have fun.
Understanding such youthful motivation has guided his vision for the Southeastern Teen Center, in the heart of the city’s Diamond neighborhoods. Since he helped open the center in 2000, Jackson, its executive director, has established a place where teens can go to have fun with no strings attached, except a loosely enforced 2.0 grade average requirement.
Kids between the ages of 13 and 19 can arrive at the center from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. to lounge, play board or video games, watch television or surf the internet, free of charge.
“Simply fun stuff. No education twist whatsoever,” Jackson said.
The center has adopted what he described as a paradigm-shifting approach to youth services in a part of the city too often deemed synonymous with gang violence, drug use, teen pregnancy, and high school dropouts.
Attracting teens to activities and an environment they enjoy, he said, is critical to any future success in addressing the social and educational needs of kids with odds stacked against them. So the teen center lets kids have fun, with the belief that they’ll then be more willing to participate in educational programming.
The center is situated between a fast-food restaurant and an empty lot near the corner of Euclid Avenue and Market Street. Its blue corrugated metal walls and multi-colored roof only hint at the bustle of youthful activity inside.
At a table in the middle of the center’s bright green lounging area, several teens play a game of Scattergories, belting out responses like “Botany! Bootyshorts! Barack Obama! B.E.T.! Bean Sandwich!” Others are enveloped by lush couches, texting on cell phones or watching a large screen T.V.
Computers and video game consoles fill two adjacent rooms, and they’re humming too.
When it opened nine years ago in a trailer near the local trolley station, the center’s only mandate was to get kids through the doors. Its funders — including the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation and the San Diego Neighborhood Funders — sought to create a safe space for teenagers who might otherwise have no place to go, and thus be prone to trouble.
As a 19-year-old himself, Jackson said, figuring out how to attract other teens was easy. By providing computers, video games, music, and organizing events like dances and concerts, Jackson said, “we mastered that in two to three months.”
The center became a place where local teens could interact with its young staff and expect nothing except a good time.
For teens, it was a welcome addition to a neighborhood severely lacking in recreational opportunities. The local YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs offer structured recreation and family programs that appeal to some teenagers, but not all.
“There are 72,000 households in my service area, and there are so few agencies like the Southeastern Teen Center, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, and Inner City Youth,” said Michael Brunker, executive director of the Jackie Robinson YMCA, a few blocks from the teen center.
The center’s focus on fun was a steep departure from the approach of non-profit service providers that targeted youth through educational and outreach campaigns.
As a young man, Jackson said, he recognized flaws in that prevailing approach because it lacked a basic understanding of engagement. Working with the marketing department of a local job placement initiative, Jackson had knocked on doors in poor neighborhoods, looking for young people who needed jobs.
“Even if you needed a job, you don’t want to be knocked on the door while you’re in the middle of taking a nap or something and be harassed by it. It’s very invasive,” he said.
“The overall landscape of youth programming wasn’t necessarily addressing the tangible needs that teenagers had,” Jackson said.
Non-profit organizations seeking to educate teenagers about the dangers of unprotected sex or drug use, Jackson said, have tried but often failed to peak youths’ interests. “If I just sat you down as a youth and talked about health education all day long, I’m going to bore you to death,” Jackson said. “And nobody’s going to go.”
“So the marketing ploy is, they do all these creative fun events that are about health and education, and they try to get young people to go, but the problem is, kids are smart enough to know that this is not a normal video game, for example. This is just a trick that makes me think I’m playing a video game, but this is not fun. This is boring.”
That disconnect makes it difficult for service providers to provide services, Jackson said.
A prevailing assumption among non-profit service providers, he said, has been that youth need nonprofits to place them in jobs or keep them in school.
“Some teens want a place to just hang out, instead of having people getting them to do a duty,” said Yulma Rubio, 17, who on a recent afternoon was sitting on a couch in the center and reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
Requiring that teens complete structured programs in order to access recreational facilities, Jackson said, only turns many teenagers off, and fails to address problems they may be facing.
“They don’t want to go to an environment that feels like school,” said Yensi Ferrufino, program coordinator at the center. “If anything we’re going to scare the kids off.”
The hard part, Jackson said, has been “convincing people that there’s something to kids coming and having fun, that it actually builds to something.”
Jackson has been cultivating their comfort with the belief that that will make them more receptive to outreach programs.
For several years the center has helped teens find jobs. Only last year did it initiate a daytime tutoring program, and just last week opened a technology resource lab with computers for academic use. But students aren’t required to use them. If they only want to play video games, that’s fine.
But the center has worked to partner with nonprofit, issue-oriented organizations to facilitate access to southeastern San Diego’s teenagers, something many organizations struggle to do, Jackson said.
“Say you get a grant and you want to teach AIDS awareness to teenagers,” Jackson said. “Don’t waste your time trying to first establish yourself as hip and cool and a place where kids want to come so you can then trick them into learning about AIDS. We’ve already done that. We draw several hundred youth a year. You can come and just talk about AIDS awareness and be straight to the point.”
Because some youth service providers have been skeptical about the approach, “we needed to be marketed as a complement to whatever it is that other programs were doing,” Jackson said.
The approach has worked, he said.
His calendar is bursting with non-profit organizations trying to secure a slot to present to a comfortable, captive and willing audience.
Recent workshops have addressed self-esteem, sexually transmitted disease, and responsible money management.
They’re topics that teenagers at the center have told staff they’re interested in, and nonprofit organizations have been more than happy to oblige, Jackson said.
As the center continues growing — last year it had an operating budget of $400,000 and served 780 teenagers — its services have been slowly expanding.
Guiding students toward taking advantage of these services, Jackson said, has been easier because kids want to be there.
“Every agency has a mission, and as long as they continue to serve downstream, whoever that might be … rather than chasing upstream after funders, you’re going to better serve your constituency,” said Brunker of the YMCA. “It’s a blessing to have organizations like the Southeast Teen Center,” he said.
The center, Jackson said, is advocating a broader shift in the focus of youth services whose merits Jackson hopes organizations and funders will recognize as they seek the most effective and sustainable ways of engaging at-risk youth and addressing their needs.
“I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” said Jackson, who, not yet 30, said he still harbors other career ambitions. “If I do, it’ll mean we as providers aren’t learning.”